Big man’s big game boosts Upper St. Clair past Central Catholic into WPIAL finals

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Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | 10:21 PM


Tyler Robbins’ first basket came a few minutes after halftime, but Upper St. Clair’s big man had already altered the outcome of Tuesday’s semifinal in other ways.

Mainly by altering a bunch of shots.

The 6-foot-9 junior had six blocks and grabbed 19 rebounds in a 61-46 win over defending champion Central Catholic in a WPIAL Class 6A semifinal that drew nearly a capacity crowd to Gateway’s gym. Upper St. Clair showed again how it has good ball handlers, strong defenders and players who can score consistently, but the presence of Robbins in the middle makes them unique in the WPIAL’s big-school classification.

“He’s a game-changer,” USC coach Danny Holzer said. “He allows our defensive perimeter players to pressure the ball more and force drives and force contested shots and force rushed shots. The stat that goes unnoticed is the impact he has on the rest of our defensive play.”

USC senior Christian Ito continued his strong playoff run with a game-high 17 points, and senior Brett Meinert added 14 in a game the Panthers led from start to finish.

No. 3 seed Upper St. Clair (19-5) advances to the WPIAL finals for the second time in four years. The Panthers face No. 4 Baldwin (18-6) in the Class 6A final at 7 p.m. Saturday at Petersen Events Center.

The section foes split two regular-season games. Baldwin won the first matchup, 55-54, and Upper St. Clair won the rematch, 57-52.

“We’ve got to win one more game,” Robbins said. “That’s all we need.”

A year ago, Upper St. Clair fell one game short of reaching the finals. The Panthers lost by 24 points to Central Catholic in the semifinals last winter, so Tuesday’s win was a measure of redeption.

“It feels amazing,” Ito said. “We were in the same spot last year against Central and they beat us pretty bad. Today, it was all about the payback.”

The finals appearance will be Upper St. Clair’s fifth under Holzer, who won WPIAL titles in 1996, 2005 and 2021. He danced to the YMCA with his players in a jubilant locker room after Tuesday’s win.

“It never gets old,” Holzer said. “I’ve been very fortunate. This is our fifth time since I’ve been coaching St. Clair. … This is what you play for. This is what you coach for.”

No. 2 Central Catholic (15-9) will face No. 1 Mt. Lebanon on Thursday in a WPIAL third-place game that could’ve been a championship matchup. Instead, only the winner will advance to states.

The Vikings started Tuesday’s semifinal with a 2-0 deficit after a pregame technical for dunking in warm-ups. They never could escape that early hole after making only 7 of 25 shots in the first half.

Upper St. Clair led 14-7 after the first quarter and 28-17 at half. Central Catholic coach Brian Urso said the threat of Robbins in the middle caused his players to settle for jump shots too often.

“I thought going into the game we were pretty confident to go at him and challenge him with our athleticism,” Urso said. “But we were a little hesitant to do that all the way, so we would settle for a very tough six-footer or elbow jumper.”

Enzo Khalil led Central Catholic with 11 points, while Vernon Settles and Bradley Gompers had 10 each.

The Vikings have a number of multi-sport athletes and are a slashing team that scores around the basket, but uncharacteristically shot only 26% from the field and went 4 for 20 from 3-point range.

“We never really built the flow that we needed to,” Urso said. “(Robbins’ size) was definitely a game-changer early on, and I think that kind of stayed with us for the course of four quarters.”

Upper St. Clair shot 48% from the field in the first half and made four 3-pointers.

Junior guard Julian Dahlem sparked USC’s offense with a pair of 3s in the first quarter, and Meinert had nine points before halftime.

The Panthers finished the first quarter with a 14-7 lead. That lead stretched to 26-11 in the second quarter when Meinert and Ito made consecutive 3s.

USC led 28-17 at half.

“We don’t have just one or two guys who can score the ball,” Ito said. “We have the whole starting five plus two or three on the bench. We can all score the ball and have great chemistry. That’s what makes us a great team.”

Ito continued his scoring after the break with 12 points in the second half. He made two 3s in the fourth quarter that pushed Upper St. Clair’s lead to more than 20 points.

USC led 56-35 on a 3-pointer by Ito with 3:40 left.

“We wanted to hold them under 50 points and hold them under five 3s,” Urso said. “We wanted to really make them earn it all inside. … When they hit four in the first half and had 28 points at halftime, that kind of wiped away two of our key goals going into tonight.”

Dahlem finished with nine points, and Robbins scored eight to go along with his strong defensive night.

Holzer said this is the first time in more than 20 years that Upper St. Clair has had a true big man playing in the paint. That required some tweaks to his usual coaching strategies.

“He’s definitely gotten more used to it,” Robbins said with a laugh. “He hasn’t had a lot of great big men in the past. There have been some, but there haven’t been a lot.”

Holzer said there were some growing pains at times earlier this winter, but the team is playing its best right now.

“We struggled a little bit because we were trying to figure ourselves out,” Holzer said. “Now, we’re getting into a rhythm.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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